Washington, D.C., finished 2016 with the highest rate of homelessness of any U.S. metropolitan area with 124 out of every 10,000 residents experiencing homelessness, according to a Dec. 14 report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The Hunger and Homelessness survey used data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the National Alliance to End Homelessness to analyze both homelessness rates and homelessness growth since 2009 in the nation’s 32 largest metropolitan areas.
The District also saw one of the most significant increases in homelessness between 2009 and 2016, ranking fourth in the nation with a 34.1 percent gain, trailing only behind New York City, Wichita, Kan., and Honolulu, Hawaii.
Samantha Batko, director of the Homelessness Research Institute at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said a lack of affordable housing was the main contributor to homelessness rates both in the District and across the county.
“The District, like many other cities included in the survey report, faces the challenge of affordable housing,” Batko wrote in an email to The Hoya. “While the report shows that many of the cities are able to reduce homelessness, the national lack of affordable housing is likely to have a chilling effect on their efforts over the coming years.”
However, District Interagency Council on Homelessness Policy Advisor Theresa Silla said D.C.’s high rates of homelessness and homelessness growth are due to the area’s right-to-shelter laws implemented in 2015, which expand access to homeless services year round instead of only during hypothermia season, which is between Nov. 1 and March 31.
Due to this year-round law, Silla said resources for the homeless are used at a quicker rate by the Department of Human Services, as they are providing services for an additional seven months per year.
“These right-to-shelter laws are something that’s really distinct from a lot of other communities in the nation,” Silla said. “So, factors like affordable housing and other resources can play into these rates, but this to us explains why something or other is happening.”
The report did highlight some successful programs the District has implemented in addressing homelessness.
For example, author Eugene Lowe, USCOM assistant executive director, praised the District’s Capital Area Food Bank for its online social search engine, which connects area residents with free and reduced-price food services.
“[It is| unique among search engines in that it is designed to make human services information accessible so that people can find the help that they need easily, quickly, and anonymously,” Lowe wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Silla said the District Interagency Council on Homelessness was pleased to see that these programs garnered notice and their success indicates D.C. is on the right track on helping individuals affected by homelessness.
“We’ve put in a lot of work to really look at our system and how we’re working to connect people who are experiencing homelessness in the area to permanent housing and resources so that they can end their experience with homelessness,” Silla said. “We want to show that ending homelessness is possible, it is a reality.”
D.C. Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Michael Ferrell said a more comprehensive look at factors contributing to homelessness is necessary to lowering area rates, especially because of the effect of right-to-shelter laws.
“When you just look at the numbers without any further explanation, the numbers are what they are,” Ferrell said. “They certainly show an increase in the District’s homeless population last year compared to the year before, but understanding what those numbers represent is critically important. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last year, even if an initial look doesn’t tell you that.”
Georgetown University Homeless Outreach Programs and Education member Mandy Brouillard (NHS ’18) said these numbers show a profound need for more homelessness efforts.
“It’s a little bit ironic almost because I think people associate the capital with a place where everyone can fulfill the American Dream, but what we see is really different from that,” Brouillard said. “There’s a lot of poverty here and a lot of inequality and I think that translates into higher rates of homelessness.”
Christian Collier (COL ’19), who has worked with homeless initiatives in New York City such as the Saint Francis Xavier Food Pantry, said the numbers could serve as a call to action for area officials.
“It’s definitely a sign that the city needs to work on fixing this and working to provide more jobs are more opportunities for these homelessness individuals,” Collier said. “However, I think this is a sign to officials that they need to improve and hopefully they will.”
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